Lifting the barriers to writing: the writers’ log

barriersOn and off, over the years, I’ve thought about keeping a journal to reflect on my writing process.  I think the motivation for this lay partly in the excuse to buy another notebook: something with a pretty cover or smooth, cream paper which would contain all my brilliant insights into creativity.   Of course, lots of writers – including many I admire – have kept writing diaries (which in itself, you’d think, would have spurred me on).  For some famous examples, take a look at Emily Temple’s excellent article in Flavorwire (’10 Famous Authors on the Importance of Keeping a Journal’).  Keeping a writing journal is something I thought I *should* be doing.  I’m not saying I had pretensions to being famous, but it was something that better-known, ‘proper’ authors seemed to do.

Somehow, though – through busyness or fear or perhaps just plain laziness – I never did.  And the blank notebooks with the pretty covers and the cream paper mounted up on the shelf.

In my last post I mentioned that my friend Bec, who is a writer herself, has been doing some research to help writers improve their writing practice and build better writing habits.  Recently, Bec asked for volunteers to complete a tracker – a way of logging your writing habits – for just five days.   There was really no excuse.  I’d be helping Bec out.  I’d probably learn something useful.  And it was only for five days, after all.

She emailed me a questionnaire.  It was very simple; the questions were very open.  Starting on Monday, here’s what I had to reflect on:

  • Have you set any goals for the week?
  • What are they?
  • Did you write today?
  • How did it go?
  • How do you feel about your writing today?


For the rest of the week, the questions were the same each day (Did you write today?  How did it go? How do you feel about your writing today?).  On Friday, the writing week was rounded off with this query: if you set goals for the week, did you meet them?

Ok, so Bec is my friend (and therefore I might be a tad biased) but with this tracker she’s hit on an ingenious, yet simple, tool for writers.  What I found so brilliant about this questionnaire – and the key, I think, to its success – is the open-ended nature of the questions.  There’s space for anything that might be relevant.  It’s useful no matter whether you’re just starting out, or have many publications to your name.  What’s also great is that it works for any purpose and at any stage of the writing process.   I can use it to motivate me finish that painful first draft by setting myself a target word count.  I can also use it in the editing stage, to keep count of the number of hours I’m spending on a particular project.

It was so useful, in fact, that I thought it was worth sharing my insights and what I gained from using it.  There are probably many more learning points than I’ve written here but here, for starters, are four of them:

1 It made me consider more carefully my writing goals. 

In a survey, which Bec did earlier in the year, 30.6 % of writers claimed that one of the barriers to writing is the lack of a specific goal.  I’ve been aware, in a general way, that Goals can be Good.  For a while now (albeit somewhat unsystematically) I’ve been setting myself targets for the month or for the quarter.  On that timescale, however, too much time passes before I get round to reviewing them.  I also tend to overestimate hugely what I can get done in the three months.  I found that a weekly review allows a clearer and more realistic view of how my writing sessions will pan out.  And it can easily be adapted to fit a 7 day writing week, or a two or three day one, if that’s what you want to do.

2. I felt more motivated to write.

I think that part of this motivation stems from the very act of logging.  Is it likely, in itself, to make me more productive?  In the past I’ve filled in day-long time logs (as an exercise to see where my time goes) and I’ve found that the act of recording my actions will almost certainly make me more productive in the first place (because if I’m wasting time, I have to write it down and therefore I feel guilty).

Let me confess now that the first week I did the tracker was a very good writing week.  I was nearing the end of the first draft of writing a radio play, and the writing had a positive momentum.  I don’t know about you, but when I’m in that mode, the writing generates energy of its own – the kind that makes me actually WANT to get out of bed half an hour earlier so I can spend some more time on the project.  But I’m convinced that seeing each day how positive I was feeling about my writing from the day before created a cumulative effect.

It remains to be seen how it would be if the writing wasn’t going so well.

Anyway, I find this motivational aspect of the tracker most useful on the days when I have other work to do, and therefore limited writing time.  During the first week of the tracker, for instance, I managed to squeeze in an extra hour and a half on the days when I had other work.  I guess this is because, psychologically, I’d have been disappointed in myself to write down a big fat zero.  Psychology aside, any trick that helps to get the words on the page has got to be a good one, I reckon.

3. It made me think about my definition of writing ‘success’

In this reflective model, ‘success’ is specific to the writer.  It might be the number of words written; the number of pages produced; or the amount of minutes or hours spent writing.   Some weeks, this might mean different things.  For me, on those weeks when I work 33 hours a week in another job, writing ‘days’ are compressed into ‘writing hours’.  The focus with the tracker is to reflect on what you achieved in the amount of time you had.  No comparisons.  I find that hugely liberating.

More importantly, using the tracker has led me to question, on a day to day basis, the measure of ‘success’.  The key question here is: How do I feel about the writing today?  This allows me to reflect on right now, not what I achieved yesterday, or what I might achieve tomorrow.  Did I achieve what I set out to do today?  If not, why not?  What got in the way?  Examining these obstacles is illuminating in itself. Also, very important: I might feel like I’ve fallen short just now, but tomorrow is another writing day.

4. It made me reflect more closely on why I write

The best thing, for me, about the tracker, has been to witness how my mood and emotions permeate the writing practice.  By this I don’t mean that each entry was an exercise of psychoanalytical torture – just that it fostered an awareness that the energy generated by writing can be channelled back into the writing: it’s going well; I’ve achieved good things; bring on tomorrow.

As I say, my use of the writing tracker so far has coincided with a productive writing period.  But I hope that the process of reflecting will develop the  ability to ‘self-coach’ when it’s not going so well – to identify practical and tangible reasons why, rather than just thinking I’m a shit writer.  Crucially, this is allowing me to develop a relationship with my writing process which feels new and exciting and – if I’m honest – a little bit scary.  I wish I’d done it years ago.  After all, my relationship with the creative process is one of the main reasons I want to write: to get to know myself, and the world, a little better.

So I can’t thank Bec enough for providing the framework – and for the research that prompted me to use the method in the first place.  The tracker is now a permanent fixture in my writing life.  I regret that I didn’t start using such a reflective tool years ago.  It takes merely minutes each day to respond to the questions but the insights far outweigh the time taken.  I’ve no doubt that if I’d started this process of reflection at an earlier stage during the nine years I’ve been writing seriously, it would have accelerated my learning of the craft.

Still, it’s never too late.  The thing about writing is that there’s always more to learn.


In the spirit of sharing, here are some questions to consider: do you keep a reflective journal?  Do you have other tools or strategies to keep you aware or keep you motivated?  I’d be fascinated to hear!




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